At this point in the season, the early risers and surprises on the waiver wire (players people like me should have told you to draft) have been picked over. For in-season player improvement, we're primarily left with trades and players who could emerge as second-half fantasy factors.
Whenever gauging a player's potential to outperform his current level of fantasy production later in the season, I look toward two basic areas: efficiency and volume. (And if they're a rookie, but that's a different story).
Ideally, in fantasy, an NBA player will rank high on both sides of the efficiency/volume equation. He'll hit for a high percentage of shots, he won't turn the ball over and he will rack up big stats with a large dose of minutes played and percentage of his team's possessions.
In short? He doesn't waste his touches and he handles the ball a lot. (Basically, he's Kevin Durant. But I don't imagine he's on the wire in many leagues.)
I want to discuss two of my favorite next-level stats: PER and usage rate.
PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is John Hollinger's complex formula that gives a state-of-the-art summation of a player's per-minute statistical production. For the uninitiated, the NBA average PER is 15. A top-40 PER is usually over 20. Your mega-elites will log a PER at or above 25 (LeBron James is over 29 and Kevin Durant is just under 28).
PER is very useful when looking at what a player is capable of delivering in fantasy situations given 25 or more minutes per game. You can obviously own players who are valuable despite a low PER, but the true fantasy elites are almost always PER elites.
There are always some players with high PERs who aren't squarely on the fantasy radar because they lack the other half of the equation: opportunity. PER measures production on a per-minute basis. Take a player with a high PER, give him 20 minutes a night, and you have a guy who's still only living, at best, on Mediterranean Avenue in Fantasyland (unless your name is Eric Bledsoe, more on him in a moment).
On the other hand, you can have a player with a near or below-average PER (below 15) logging 35-plus minutes a night who's still worth owning. It just means he's probably hurting you in the percentage and turnover categories (for example: Monta Ellis, Ty Lawson and Andrea Bargnani).
I want to add one more element to the volume side of the discussion: usage rate, which measures the amount of possessions a player averages per 40 minutes played. It's like PER, a stat that doesn't reflect a player's actual amount of touches because it's not taking actual minutes played into account. It's only extrapolating how many possessions said player would get if he played 40 minutes a night.
Is a certain player counted on to generate offense? Does he dominate possession in a way that projects into heavy volume if said player is given starter's minutes? These are questions usage rate goes a long way toward answering.
You don't need a high usage rate to be a successful fantasy player. Durant is only 16th in the NBA with a usage rate of 28.54. But he's so brutally efficient (27.65 PER) with the touches he gets that he's become the No. 1 player in fantasy.
A high usage rate can help push lower-PER players up the Player Rater rankings. Kobe Bryant has been a pleasant surprise so far in fantasy because he's combined an elite PER (25.55) with the second-highest usage rate in the NBA (32.1) and a high minutes-per-game average (37.4). He's elevating his game because his team needs him. I'm not a Laker enthusiast, but you have to admire a man with that kind of mileage producing like that.
Let's take a look at some players whose usage rate and/or PER point towards a possible breakout.
High PER Players
1. Eric Bledsoe, PG, Los Angeles Clippers (USG 25.2, PER 23.90, 18.6 MPG): Here's a game I play with Bledsoe: Double his stats as to reflect what he'd be averaging with around 35 minutes per game. That would leave you with 20.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 0.8 3-pointers, 3.2 steals and 1.4 blocks. Basically, he'd be a top-five point guard.
He's still providing value in deep leagues but would need a Chris Paul injury or a trade elsewhere to really start reaping his statistical potential. And I can't see the Clippers trading him for anything less than a lottery pick. I've mentioned this recently, but the blocks and boards from the point guard slot are a rare fantasy commodity. There isn't a better shot-blocking point guard in the NBA than Bledsoe.
2. JaVale McGee, C, Denver Nuggets (USG 21.1, PER 23.67, 19.7 MPG): McGee's last two games sum up his Nuggets career to date. On Friday, he storms to 20 points, 8 rebounds and a block in 30 minutes of extended run. On Sunday, he lays a 16-minute egg with 4 points, 3 rebounds and 3 blocks.
It's refreshing to see McGee be held accountable for his more mercurial flourishes, but you have to figure at some point George Karl has to relent and turn him loose. Until then, he's a blocks specialist and not even a top-20 center (No. 22 on the Player Rater).
3. Tiago Splitter, PF/C, San Antonio Spurs (17.9 USG, PER 21.55, 18.9 MPG): Splitter has been victimized by the too-fluid rotation in the Spurs' frontcourt. Like McGee, Splitter's value seems more tied toward earning his coach's trust than any on-court factors.
Splitter has been getting talked up for years. The Spurs were smart to land him. But he's a free agent next season and it might be best for San Antonio to deal him for value before his possible defection for more playing time next summer. If that happens and he's given starter's minutes, look out.
4. Brandan Wright, PF/C, Dallas Mavericks (USG 15.7, PER 21.16, 18.6 MPG): Give Wright consistent minutes and the production will arrive. Wright's an efficient offensive player (a .643 True Shooting Percentage this season), but he doesn't rebound well enough or play tough enough defense to earn the admiration of NBA coaching staffs.
He's still young (he just turned 25), and there's still time for him to turn it around. With multiple injuries in the Mavericks' frontcourt, Rick Carlisle may have no choice but to start Wright, at least in the short term.
5. Andre Drummond, PF/C, Detroit Pistons (14.6 USG, 20.07 PER, 17.8 MPG): I'm only including one rookie on each side of this list. (I don't want this column to get overwhelmed with rookie projections.) But I have to confess: I've been drooling over Drummond's fantasy potential since the preseason. He's continuing to build up his minutes in Lawrence Frank's rotation and is primed for a nice second half. The fantasy combination of a Drummond/Greg Monroe frontcourt could be numerically devastating. Just, please -- for the love of Dr. Naismith -- don't let this guy near a free throw line (39 percent from the stripe so far this season).
High Usage Rate
1. Jordan Crawford, SG, Washington Wizards (27.1 USG, 17.80 PER, 25.6 MPG): Crawford's poor overall defensive effort has led to his being confined to sixth-man status. But with their point guards dropping like flies, the Wizards could be forced to use Crawford as the starting point guard. That would prove a boon for Crawford's fantasy value.
He's subtly improved his efficiency numbers this season (a career high 17.80 PER), and with John Wall's return looking more and more nebulous (eight weeks, my foot!), Crawford could be starting alongside Bradley Beal in the very near future.
2. Ben Gordon, SG, Charlotte Bobcats (25.3 USG, 18.41 PER, 23.4 MPG): Even back when Gordon was logging starters' minutes, he was streaky. Now, he's strictly a 3-pointer specialist (2.3 made per game). But he's shown enough vintage scoring punch in limited playing time to suggest that an injury in Charlotte's backcourt could lead to a second-half sleeper situation.
3. Andray Blatche, PF/C, Brooklyn Nets (25.1 USG, 24.13, PER, 20.2 MPG): Blatche's recent outburst hasn't been a surprise for us Wizards fans. The potential for Blatche to be a special fantasy player has always been there. It's just been a matter of consistency, hustle and simple desire.
Blatche, in the past, has put it all together in short bursts. There's no reason to trust this hot streak. But he's been saying and doing almost all the right things so far in Brooklyn (maybe stay away from D.C. sports talk radio, Andray). Blatche has flourished since taking over for Brook Lopez five games ago (17.2 PPG, 9.8 rebounds, 2.0 steals). Is this just another tease, or has Blatche finally turned a corner?
4. Nene, PF/C Washington Wizards (22.3 USG, 19.48 PER, 21.0 MPG): Thanks to the minutes limit imposed on him by the Wizards staff, Nene's production is still depressed in the 10-point/5-rebound per game range. But his minutes are starting to edge upward, and all Nene needs to be valuable is 25-27 minutes per night (his career average is 29.5 minutes a game).
His field goal percentage is still off his career number (48 percent versus 56 percent), but the needle is starting to move on his lines.
5. Andrew Nicholson, PF, Orlando Magic (21.0 USG, 18.68 PER, 14.0 MPG): Here's a rookie deep-sleeper special. He's been on my watch list since the preseason, where he flashed some nice Ryan Anderson-lite moments. He's only playing 14 minutes per game for the semi-surprising Magic (and hasn't attempted any 3-pointers), but you'd think his role would expand as the season progresses (and if the Magic fall out of playoff contention).
Nicholson's overstuffed line on Sunday (19 points, 9 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 assists) provides a nice little harbinger of what could be in store in his fantasy future.